There is no hiding place for the SDLP…

Liam Clarke with a description of the SDLP’s predicament that resembles that guy who recently followed his sat nav and took his truck down a forest footpath only to get horribly stuck… In favour of McDonnell:

“What we need is a bruiser and an organiser. Alasdair fits the bill on both,” one supporter said, pointing also to his thick skin, his pragmatic attitude and an ability to weather personal attacks from opponents.

The bruiser part has a downside, however. McDonnell, known as Big Al, has an outgoing personality and can charm voters. But within the party he can be brusque with subordinates and frank to the point of rudeness.

People who built power bases under Durkan see McDonnell as a tough and none-too-diplomatic taskmaster, who would follow his own hunches and upset the internal fiefdom of anyone who got in his way.

And Ritchie:

Ritchie, 51, is popular for fighting her corner against the DUP and Sinn Fein in the executive. She refused public money to community groups with links to the UDA, which led to a showdown with Peter Robinson and the move was subsequently overturned in the courts. She successfully faced down the DUP over cuts in her housing budget and has won the support of Sir Reg Empey, the Ulster Unionist leader, in most of her tussles within the executive.

Besides Hanna, Ritchie’s key supporters include Dolores Kelly, an MLA in Upper Bann, and Alex Attwood, the SDLP’s sole MLA in West Belfast. She is generally seen as the leadership choice, a steady-as-she-goes candidate with pluck and ability. People use words like “honest”, “sincere” and “determined” to describe her. On the debit side, she is seen as having “a glass jaw” when it comes to taking criticism. Critics say ‘Wee Maggie’ takes offence readily and is too easily needled by Sinn Fein. Questions are being asked over how she would react to the pressures of leading the SDLP through its present crisis, especially if she remains a minister.

But underlying it all is the deeply uncompetitive nature of a party whose voters have been staying home in their tens of thousands… ceding much of the available political capital in the next political generation to their rivals in Sinn Fein. The conditioning situation which underlies the party’s current defensiveness in South Down:

McGrady, who has been 22 years in parliament, has announced his intention of standing in the next Westminster election. He told his local paper he is looking forward to the next two decades.

Some McDonnell supporters don’t see the joke, however, and believe he should have stood aside to let Ritchie contest the seat. There are even criticisms of Durkan for not putting pressure on McGrady to hand over before his majority is eroded.

Whoever wins faces a challenge to keep the SDLP together. The fact that Durkan, 49, is the party’s youngest MLA says it all. He had been expected to lead for longer and will be replaced by an older candidate.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty